Lego Universe’s Chris Sherland discusses the launch of the kid’s MMO
Few would have guessed that following Jumpgate, Auto Assault and Warmonger NetDevil’s next project would be a Lego-based MMO, but that’s exactly the direction the studio took. With the servers for the game soon to be open to the public, we spoke with Lego Universe lead producer Chris Sherland about the past, present and future of MMOs for kids.
What makes Lego a good fit for the MMO template?
I think combining Lego with an MMO is probably the coolest idea I’ve ever heard of. If you think about it and the possibilities therein, it unfolds in your mind. Bringing that Lego play experience into the digital realm, in a social environment, is extremely unique. What we’ve got here is all the best of Second Life – which, to be honest, is probably not a great deal, but the best in that you can express yourself very personally there – and all the best of LittleBigPlanet, which is sharing those experiences, and then bringing kids into that adventure space. So the benefit is that you get a great synthesis of the three very different concepts all together in one place.
How long has Lego Universe now been in development?
It’s been about four years now.
How has development progressed in that time, from initial concept to final product?
Well, we really spent the first year and a half just figuring out what Lego Universe was going to be. The challenge was to make sure that the game was a creative experience – that people were creating content rather than just consuming it – so that suggested we needed a lot of user-generated content. Figuring out how to manifest that in an MMO was our biggest challenge.
We took a lot of examples from other games that were out there that had those kinds of elements. The Traveller’s Tales games really inspired us for our basic gameplay constructs, for example, but then we looked to stuff like Second Life, which is really just a UGC cesspool. We didn’t want that kind of experience, but we did want that really big, personalised world.
It literally took us about a year to get the first fifteen minutes of the game playable, but after we pinned down those ideas it was over to iteration and focus testing. One of the main components of our style of development is to build something, put it in front of a kid, and watch what happens. So we did a lot of that, and from there it was pretty easy to iterate on our ideas and build the content outwards.
The game has been delayed several times over the years. Why was this?
Well, they were all good reasons! It took us a while to figure out what Lego Universe was. One of the first problems we encountered, for example, was that we made a really mild, peaceful game, and it just didn’t test very well with eight-year-old boys. So we had to go back and introduce a lot of battle elements. The first year-and-a-half was really spent trying to tease out what the spirit of Lego Universe was. The mandate from Lego was pretty broad; ‘build, play, socialise’. We had to figure out what that meant and how to make a game out of it. It took us a while to figure it out. Lego’s been extremely supportive throughout those delays, though.
What are the limits to what you can create? Are you concerned at all about inappropriate content?
When you get to the full on building experience there are no limitations. However we have to put social and safety limitations around that experience because you don’t want kids consuming inappropriate content. So the trick is how to manage a fully free and open building environment inside a social construct.
What we did was put that build experience into a semi-private space. You basically get your own planet, and you can build anything you want there. It can be a private space, or you can open it up to just your friends, or you can open it up to the public community at large. There are different layers of moderation that have to happen for all those different constructs. Lego’s commitment to child safety says that if this is a public property it’s got to be fully moderated. Lego already does this on its website for their creator website (you can visit it here) where you can build anything you want and share it to the community. All those models are moderated. So we’re using that same basic idea, and that same staffing model, to ensure all user-generated content in Lego Universe gets moderated.
How fast is this moderation?
Well, the models aren’t moderated in real time. As a player I can create what I want in and there’s no delay in seeing that creation, but if I go to share that model with someone else, that’s when that moderation takes place. We don’t have an exact time on how long it takes, but it happens fairly quickly. It depends on player load and other such things.